Army goes to war over SAS man's revelations

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The Ministry of Defence has blocked the publication of new evidence which is set to reignite the controversy surrounding "non-judicial executions" of terror suspects by British forces in Northern Ireland.

Army censors have suppressed a statement compiled by an Army intelligence officer which describes in graphic detail an SAS action which led to the killing of three IRA suspects in 1991.

The statement was due to be published today in a new history of the SAS and other special forces units, but was withdrawn following a meeting between ministry officials and the publishers.

The book makes a vitriolic attack on Sir Peter de la Billiere, the commander of British forces in the Gulf War and the former director of the SAS, who is accused of misrepresenting the actions of the elite regiment in Northern Ireland in his own book.

The Independent has obtained an account, compiled by an operative with 14th Intelligence, an undercover army unit that works closely with the SAS.

The account describes an SAS operation designed to pre-empt a sectarian IRA attack at Coagh, in County Tyrone in June 1991. It claims that the terrorists were allowed to arm themselves and drive, under surveillance, to the village before being killed in a hail of bullets.

It has been suggested that there was no prospect of making an arrest. The so-called "yellow-card" rules say that security forces personnel should always give a warning unless "to do so would increase the risk of death or grave injury to you or any other person", or they are actually already under fire. In practice, this means that when the weapons are out, the security forces start shooting.

In the original version of the new book, Secret Warfare: Special Operations Forces from the Great Game to the SAS, the author Adrian Weale, said: "If there had been a real intention of arresting the Coagh terrorists it could and should have been done whilst their vehicle was under surveillance en route to Coagh."

In the event, the SAS used a disguised lorry to ambush the terrorists as they arrived in Coagh. Around 200 shots were fired into their stolen Vauxhall Cavalier and it burst into flames. The terrorists Tony Doris, Peter Ryan and Laurence McNally were burnt beyond recognition. The IRA later admitted that the men were members and were "on active service".

The account is in no way critical of the actions of colleagues and describes the ambush as a "classic result".

But Mr Weale, himself a former army intelligence officer who is now a respected military historian, and representatives of his publisher Hodder & Stoughton, were brought before an MoD committee, where the changes were demanded.

The MoD would not comment on the matter but it is thought that ministry officials believed the intelligence officer had overstated the amount of information which the SAS had prior to the ambush.

There may also be concerns that, despite the passage of more than six years, the inquests into the three deaths have still not been heard or even listed.

At the time of the killings, nationalist politicians had expressed their hope that every effort had been made to arrest the men.

Last night, Francie Molloy, a Sinn Fein councillor who knew the three dead men, said: "This shows there were enough troops on the ground to have secured the arrest of the occupants of the car without anyone being shot.

"Instead it was a case of judge, jury and executioner all in one operation."

But the MoD censors have allowed the book to carry its attack on General de la Billiere for his description of SAS activities in Northern Ireland in his 1994 autobiography, Looking for Trouble.

In particular, the general's account of the killing of a young Catholic farmer's son, is denounced as a "grotesque misrepresentation of what actually took place". John Boyle, 16, was mistakenly shot dead by two SAS men who were staking out a terrorist arms cache at a cemetery in Dunloy, Co Antrim, in 1978.

Drawing on subsequent court evidence, Mr Weale reports that the youth had earlier found the weapons and alerted the security services. But he could not resist returning to the site the following day.

In his description of the shooting, General de la Billiere claims it took place at night following a stakeout lasting several days after troops had uncovered the cache themselves. He says of the victim: "Clearly the dead man had been a member of the IRA; but he was only 16, and probably a low-grade operator."

Mr Weale writes: "Almost every detail of this version of events is false: the weapons were not originally discovered by soldiers but by Boyle himself; the stakeout had lasted for less than 24 hours; the shooting happened in broad daylight at 10am; and the victim was not and never had been a member of the IRA."

General de la Billiere declined to comment.

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